Читать онлайн «Crusader»
Fischer dropped his face in a hand and rubbed his forehead. Cancer was eating away in his belly, and he knew he would be dead within weeks. Best to take the decision now, before he was dead, and while there were still women within their community with viable wombs.
Somehow the human race had to continue.
“Send for Devereaux,” he said.
Eight days later the spaceships blasted out of the earth’s atmosphere, their crews hopeful that at least they were giving their fellows back home a chance.
What they didn’t realise was that when they’d blasted out of their underground bunkers, they’d left a corridor of dust and rock down which the maniacally hungry were already swarming.
Fischer didn’t have time to die of cancer, after all.
Chapter 1 The Wasteland (#ulink_8c998d1f-02d1-58a2-94b8-fda4d8720066)
No longer did the ancient speckled blue eagle soar through the bright skies of Tencendor. Now Hawkchilds had inhabited the seething, scalding thermals that rose above a devastated wasteland. They rode high into the broiling, sterile skies seeking that which would help their master.
The Enemy Reborn has hidden himself. Find his hiding place, find his bolthole. Find him for me!
Qeteb had been tricked. The StarSon had not died in the Maze at all. The Hunt had been a farce. Somewhere the true StarSon was hiding, laughing at him.
Find him! Find him!
And when the Hawkchilds found him, Qeteb did not want to go through the bother of another hunt through the Maze. All he wanted to do was to reach out with his mailed fists and choke the living breath out of the damned, damned Enemy Reborn’s body!
The fact that he had been tricked was almost as bad as the realisation that Qeteb’s plans for total domination of this world could not be realised until the Enemy had been defeated once and for all.
All Qeteb wanted to do was ravage, but what he had to do was stamp the Enemy into oblivion, obliteration and whatever other non-existent future Qeteb could think of as fast and as completely as he possibly could.
Find him! Find him!
And so the Hawkchilds soared, and while they did not find the Enemy Reborn’s bolthole on their first pass over the wasteland, they did find many interesting things.
It helped immeasurably that all external inessentials, like forests and foliage and homes and lives, had been blasted from the surface of the wasteland, for that meant secret things lay open to curious eyes.
Secret things that had been forgotten for many years, things that should have been remembered and seen to before the Enemy Reborn had hidden himself in his bolthole.
“Silly boy. Silly boy,” whispered the Hawkchilds as they soared and drifted. “We remember you wandering listless and hopeless in the worlds before the final leap into Tencendor. Now your forgetfulness will crucify you …”
And so they whispered and giggled and drifted and made good note of all they saw.
Far to the south a lone Hawkchild spied something sitting in the dust that had once been a rippling ocean of forest.
It was but a speck that the circling Hawkchild spotted from the corner of his eye, but the speck was somehow … interesting.
The hands at the tips of his leathery wings flexed, then grasped into tight claws, and the Hawkchild slid through the air towards the ash-covered ground.
He stood there a long while, his head cocked curiously to one side, his bright eyes slowly blinking and regarding the object.
It was plain, and obviously completely useless, but there was something of power about it and the Hawkchild knew it should be further investigated.
The bird-like creature stalked the few paces between himself and the object, paused, then carefully turned it over with one of his taloned feet.
The object flipped over and hit the ground with a dull thud, sending a fine cloud of wood ash drifting away in the bitter, northerly breeze.
The Hawkchild jumped back, hissing. For an instant, just for an instant, he thought he’d heard the whispering of a many-branched forest.
A whispering? No, an angry crackling, more like.
The Hawkchild backed away two more paces, spreading his wings for flight.
But he stopped in that heartbeat before he should have lifted into the air. The whispering had gone now — had it ever existed save in the dark spaces of his mind? — and the object looked innocuous, safe … save … save for that irritating sense of power emanating from it.
This object was a thing of magic. A fairly sorry object, granted, but mayhap his master might find it amusing.
The Hawkchild hopped forward, flapped his wings so he rose in the air a short distance, and grasped the object between his talons.
A heartbeat later he was gone, rising into a thermal that would carry him south-west into the throbbing, blackened heart of the wasteland.
Qeteb laughed, and the wasteland cringed.
“He thinks himself safe in whatever hideaway he has built for himself,” he whispered (and yet that whisper sounded as a roar in the mind of all who could hear him). “And when I find it… when I find its secret…”
The Midday Demon strode stiff-legged about the interior of the Dark Tower, his arms flung back, his metalled wings rasping across the flagged flooring of the mausoleum.
He screamed, then bellowed, then roared with laughter again.
It felt so good to be whole once more! Nevermore would he allow himself to be trapped.
Qeteb jerked to a halt, and his eyes, hidden beneath his black-visored helmet, fell on the woman standing in the gloom under one of the columned arches.
She was rather more beautiful than not, with luminous dark hair, a sinuous body beneath her stained and rust-splotched robe, and wings that had been combed into a feathered neatness trailing invitingly from her back.
Qeteb wondered how loudly she would scream if he steadied her with one fist on her shoulder, and tore a wing out with the other fist.
She said she was his mother, but Qeteb found he did not like to hear what she said. He was complete within himself, a oneness that needed no other, and he had certainly never been entrapped in her vile womb. She had never provided him with life!
But she had provided him his flesh, and for that Qeteb spared her the agony of sudden de-wingment. For the moment.
There was a movement from another side and Qeteb almost smiled. There, the soulless body of a woman, waiting for him. He lusted, for he found her very soullessness inviting and reached for her, but was distracted by the voice of Sheol from beyond the doorway.
“Great Father. One of the Hawkchilds has returned with —” “With the gateway to the StarSon’s den?” Qeteb demanded.
“No,” Sheol said, and stepped inside. Behind her walked a Hawkchild, carrying something in its hands.
“Great Father!” the Hawkchild said, and dropped to one knee before Qeteb. “See what I have discovered for you!”
He placed the object on the ground before Qeteb, and the Midday Demon looked down.
It was a wooden bowl, carved from a single block of warm, red wood.
Qeteb instinctively loathed it, and just as instinctively knew that it would bring him great fortune.
Beyond the mausoleum the Maze swarmed with creatures dark of visage and of mind; the vast majority of demented creatures within the wasteland had found their way to the land’s black heart. They climbed and capered and whispered through every corridor and conundrum of the Maze, a writhing army of maddened animals and peoples, waiting only for Qeteb, waiting for the word for them to act.
Out there waited a hunting, for the hunt in the Maze had proven disappointing in the extreme. The man, the false StarSon, had offered his breast to the point of the sword without a whimper (indeed, with a smile and with words of love), and now the hopes and dreams of the maddened horde lay in drifts and shards along the hardened corridors of the Maze.
There was a hunt, somewhere. There was a victim, somewhere. There was a sacrifice, waiting, somewhere, and the whispering, maniacal horde knew it.
They lived for the Hunt, and for the Hunt alone.
There was one creature crawling through the Maze who was not at all insane, although some may have doubted the lucidness of the twisting formulations of his mind.
WolfStar, still covered in Caelum’s blood, still with the horror of that plunging sword imprinted on his mind, crawling towards what he hoped might be a salvation, but which he thought would probably be a death.
Creatures swarmed around and over him, and although a few gave him a cursory glance, or a peck, or a grinding with dulled teeth, none paid him any sustained attention.
After all, he looked like just one more of their company.
Chapter 2 The Detritus of an Epic (#ulink_1ea5881f-cf02-56fc-acf2-26f64bc396c6)
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